A tense weekend of brinksmanship between the United States and North Korea culminated in a failed missile test from the reclusive dictatorship. And while the busted launch does highlight the country’s long-term commitment to advancing its warfare capabilities, it also shouldn’t cause undo alarm. In fact, it was something close to routine.
North Korean officials have long hinted at the country’s aspirations for long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry miniaturized nuclear warheads. They’ve made advances toward abandoning liquid fuel for solid, which offers both added stability and the chance to fire quickly enough to avoid detection. At a holiday military parade on Saturday the country showed off what appear to be a new type of long-range missile, a new reentry apparatus on a known missile, canisters big enough to hold extremely large missiles (that may have been empty), and extensive displays of solid fuel technology. Prior to the weekend, analysts looking at satellite photos of a North Korean nuclear test site had reported that the facility seemed to be gearing up for a test.
All of which spelled potential escalation. But based on the Saturday missile launch that actually happened, experts don’t yet see proof that North Korea can make good on all of its technological claims.
Saturday’s test at a submarine base on North Korea’s eastern coast ended almost as soon as it began. The missile, which seems to have been a medium-range KN-17 model, and had what the State Department described as “prohibited technology,” exploded four to five seconds after launch. It’s unclear whether it used thesolid fuel infrastructure North Korea has been working so hard to adopt, or liquid fuel. North Korea did another KN-17 test on April 4 that progressed a bit farther, but that missile crashed into the Sea of Japan after traveling less than 40 miles.
International officials and media speculated that the test could have been sabotaged by a US Department of Defense hacking campaign that reportedly thwarted a series of North Korean missile launch tests in 2016. But analysts are skeptical that hacking played a role.
First, experts say it would be difficult to use digital hacking techniques to disrupt a missile itself immediately at launch. More likely, hacking would introduce flaws in the manufacturing of a rocket that would cause it to malfunction later in its flight. This would have the added benefit of leaving North Korean engineers with less data about what went wrong, versus destroying the missile close to its launch site where it is still relatively easy to observe visually and with sensors.
“The missile itself is a very hard target for a cyberattack. It is very strongly isolated from the rest of the world, there are very few opportunities for attack,” said John Schilling, a satellite and launch vehicle propulsion systems specialist at the Aerospace Corporation, during a press briefing on Tuesday.
North Korea presents a tricky hacking target more broadly, because it has so little internet access in the first place. Where countries like the US generally have extensive connectivity, and therefore a broad overall attack surface, a country like North Korea has few digital paths in. That also makes it easier for North Korea to find and neutralize threats lurking on its networks once they are exposed.
“With the articles coming out a few months ago, that would have tipped [North Korea] off if they didn’t already know about the operation,” says Greg Martin, CEO of the cybersecurity firm JASK who has consulted for the FBI, Secret Service, and NASA. “They would have had plenty of notice to track down any operation and start to develop a defense.”
US hacking could still have played a role in the missile explosion, but experts note that frequent test launch failures are common when a country is developing new weapons technology. “Rocketry is hard, and unless you’re bringing the resources of NASA to the table, your early tests will usually fail,” said Schilling.
If anything, Saturday’s display showed that the North Korean missile program can’t yet deliver on the worst-case scenario. For the US at least, though, the types of missiles it can successfully launch shouldn’t pose a near-term threat.
“We don’t estimate [North Korea] having a realistic capability to launch an ICBM at the United States until sometime around 2020 or thereafter, and in any event not until many months or probably a year or two after their first ICBM test,” said Schilling. “So this isn’t an imminent crisis. The imminent threat is to South Korea and Japan.”
The Non-Nuclear Threat
North Korea’s arsenal includes plenty of non-nuclear threats. Wile the country has roughly 20 nuclear warheads, it has stockpiled closer to 1000 ballistic missiles, Schilling says. Those put Seoul could at immediate risk for artillery attacks. North Korea could also target its farther-flung adversaries with covert operations. As Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly noted on Saturday, the Hermit Kingdom could target the US with damaging, even life-threatening cyberattacks.
And even as the US seems to be scaling back its rhetoric, experts caution not to underestimate the potential role brinksmanship can play in North Korea’s actions. “What we saw over the weekend was not unexpected,” says Joseph Bermudez, a strategic advisor of AllSource Analysis, Inc. who analyzes satellite images of North Korea for for watchdog group 38 North. “North Korea practices a great deal of deception. It shows us quite often what we want to see and in that regard we have to be careful about jumping to conclusions.”
Take, for example, the latest batch of images from the North Korean nuclear test site taken on Sunday. Rather than preparing for war, the occupants were playing volleyball at three different sites around the facility. “This is unusual,” Bermudez says. “It suggests that the facility might be going into a standby mode. It also suggests that these volleyball games are being conducted with the North Koreans knowing that we’ll be looking and reporting on it.” Welcome to volleyball as wartime misdirection.
While theTrump administration seemed somewhat shaken by North Korea’s military tech this weekend, those who coexist with the threat every day found the tension less eye-opening.
“If you were on the peninsula either in South Korea or North Korea you wouldn’t have seen any signs of tension. You wouldn’t have seen Pyongyang being evacuated. You wouldn’t have seen border closings. You wouldn’t have seen South Koreans running to the stores to stockpile food,” says Joel Wit, a co-director of 38 North.
This time, at least, it was just another failure.
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